INTERVIEW: Film Critic and Historian Leonard Maltin

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People love movies. Some of these people may even consider themselves film buffs. There is even a good chance that these people know more about movies than the average homo sapien, but there is still one man out there who has truly earned this title. That man is Leonard Maltin. Mr. Maltin is a renowned film critic, film historian, New York Times Bestseller, and teaches a class at the University of Southern California on films. He has published several movie guides including ones on classic movies, Disney movies, and animated movies. His most recent movie guide, Leonard Maltin’s 2012 Movie Guide, is a new edition that includes over 17,000 reviews, including 300 new ones from his last edition.

Needless to say when I was given the opportunity to do a phone interview with Mr. Maltin, I was flabbergasted. Aside from my usual fear that I will accidentally say something beyond embarrassing in my nervous fit that will unleash my inner baffoonery, I was nervous simply because he is one of the movie experts out there. I can honestly say, though, that Leonard Maltin is one of the nicest people out there and was a joy to interview.

In the interview he reveals what he thinks is missing from contemporary films, his favorite comic book movie, along with other thoughtful insights on films and filmmaking. After the interview I thanked him and then told him that this was my first interview ever. He said that I did a good job :)

This new edition has over 17,ooo reviews. Do you ever sit back and think about the sheer number of movies that you have watched?

I don’t because I guess it’s like scaling a mountain in a way. I’ve never scaled a mountain, so I don’t know, but I guess it’s like scaling a mountain. You don’t think about the mountain, you think about the immediate path in front of you. So, since I see new movies all the time every week and trying to keep tabs on them I just work at it, you know, bits at a time.


This new edition includes 300 new reviews. With these 300 additions, have you noticed any thematic trends or changes compared to movies that were made, let’s say, 10, 20, or even 30 years ago?

Yeah, they’re getting cruder.

Cruder?

Yeah. It seems like the IQ level is going down and the level of vulgarity is going up. I don’t think it just seems that way, it is that way, but those are broad statements. You know, there are always, and thank goodness, there are exceptions to this rule including that one. And if not I might give up the ghosts. (laughs)

Now, 17,000 is an extraordinary number. For you, what makes a movie truly stand out from the crowd of 17,000?

Oh, well, when I go to see a movie I don’t go in with a checklist, you know, of things that I demand of that movie, but I do hope for originality. That’s something I value greatly.

Especially now?

Yes, more than ever. But, really I try to take each film on its own terms. I don’t mind seeing a formula movie if the formula is approached with enthusiasm or gusto or just great finesse. That can be enjoyable too. I don’t want to be insulted, I don’t want to be bored. I guess those would be the main things and so surveying the vast territories of these thousands films, to look at the great ones, they’re the ones whether it’s The Social Network or The King’s Speech, let’s say, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Wizard of Oz, you know. Each one is unique and memorable and not like a half dozen other movies that came out the same time.

It seems like these days its so easy to become jaded with movies that come out. 

Well, unfortunately that’s true.

Do you feel that there are there movies out there that have absolutely no redeeming value, they are simply awful, or do even the bad movies have something to offer?

Well, I must confess I’ve gotten choosier as I’ve gotten older and I don’t subject myself to films that on the surface seem to have no value, to me, and that’s something I should emphasize that this is all a matter of opinion. You know, I could tell you from my mail, and my email, and the comments on my website that it’s all opinion and something that I may find devoid of value someone else, not only may, but almost certainly will defend. I tell this to my students. I teach a class at USC and we just had our first session last week. I have 350 students in a large auditorium and we screen new movies every week, and one of the things I tell them on opening night is that they may be surprised at the diversity of opinion within the room. We’re all going to watch the same movie at the same time, same setting under the same circumstances, and there’s going to be a wide range of reactions. No one’s right and no one’s wrong. It’s just opinion. Now, that said, I think there’s such a thing as an informed opinion.

You’ve also written a guide for classic movies. What do you wish was more prominent in contemporary films that existed in classic movies? 

The craft of storytelling, for one thing. So many filmmakers today are afraid of telling a simple linear story because they think it’s too old fashioned and they’ll bend themselves into a pretzel to avoid it. Well, you know, sometimes the novelty value of telling a non-linear story is interesting in itself, but sometimes it gets in the way of the story or it tries to camouflage the fact that there isn’t a very good story being told.

I think a lot of movies have to do that these days. 

Yeah. I love movies of the 1930s, for instance, but they made a lot of bad movies then too. Those are not the ones that we talk about and cherish, but they did have a certain knack for storytelling. Even if it was routine storytelling. Another thing I love about old movies is the array of colorful character actors in supporting roles. We don’t have many actors like that today.

No, we don’t. I definitely agree that character actors are something that is lacking in contemporary movies. 

And what happens is if they become successful, like say John C. Reilly, you know, or someone like that, they kind of get promoted to leading roles, and there’s nothing wrong with that, he’s a wonderful actor, just to name one off the top of my head, but it means he is then no longer one of the supporting players that can add to a scene and make a scene come to life just by being there.

Specifically with movies that have come out in the past 10 years, what movies do you think will be considered classics to the next generation and the generation after that? 

Well, boy, I don’t know, that requires a kind of crystal ball (laughs). I don’t know, well, I mean with apologies for being redundant I’ll go back to The Social Network and The King’s Speech because they’re both great movies and I think those movies will not only stand the test of time, but I think will stand as being emblematic of our time. I think people will look back at those two movies from 2010 and say that’s what was two different, two vastly different films of 2010 that showed on one the one hand what the zeitgeist of the moment was, The Social Network, and how other filmmakers swimming against the tide could tell a period story with such contemporary relevance.

You have a real appreciation for animated movies. How do you feel about the evolution of these movies, especially since so many now are computer generated? 

Well, I care less about the technique than the content. It’s my contention that Shrek became a hit because it had such a funny script and great voice work and I think somewhat typically it sent the wrong message to Hollywood. It sent a message to Hollywood that, “Oh, see? This is what people want. They want these three dimensional characters, CG.” Three dimensional characters, I don’t think that was the message at all, the message was, “We want funny movies with good voice work.” I think if Shrek had been animated with matchstick figures it still would have been funny and might have still been a success. Instead, we’ve had all these CG animated films inflicted upon us and the level of skill of making that has gone up, but not necessarily the ability to tell a good story or create memorable characters.

There has been a recent trend of movies based on comic books. What do you think about this trend?

There’s nothing wrong with a really good comic book movie, but there’s such a thing as too much chocolate too and I like eating chocolate, but I don’t want to overdose on it. I like variety in my moviegoing and I’m sorry that we’re at a stage of filmmaking in Hollywood where the business decisions that had to be made demand that only the films with the broadest world wide audience potential are going to get made by major studios. You have to take each film as a separate case.

Now forgive me, I know this is a type of question you must get asked a lot, but specifically with comic book movies, if you had to pick a favorite, which one would you pick? 

My favorite is Spiderman 2.

I love that movie!

Well, good. Great minds think alike.

Thank you! (Author’s note: I had to try really hard not to scream “TEEHEE!” at this moment)

I just think that movie has everything, you know, and they beat the odds by improving on the first movie which doesn’t often happen.

Definitely, especially in this age of sequels and prequels.

It had everything. It had great drama, great storytelling, a great cast and not just in the leading roles, dazzling special effects, but all in the service of telling a story that had real emotion and where there was something serious at stake that you cared about with those characters. (Pause) I want to add a P.S. to that, which makes Spiderman 3 all the more disappointing.

Oh, I agree about Spiderman 3. We live in the age of internet and blogging and almost anyone now can open up a website and call themselves a film critic. Do you think that adds a positive or negative connotation to the term critic, especially before since you used the term ‘informed opinion’? 

Well, just as the internet and youtube have empowered anyone to call him or herself a filmmaker, or a musician, or an artist, so it is with critics. On the one hand, you know, it opens the doors to thoughtful and talented people who might not have had a chance to make themselves known otherwise, but that same door is now open to bird brains and idiots. Self-important, let me add the word, self-important bird brains and idiots. So, you know, the challenge is distinguishing among them to find the ones that have something of value to say.

Naturally, and that can be very difficult at times with the number of websites that are out there.

Mmhm.

These days it feels like so many movies are either a remake or a reboot of a classic, for instance the current “Straw Dogs”. Why do you think this is happening? 

I did some research last year and came to realize that this is cyclical.

Really?

Yeah, and in the 50s they remade all the films from the 30s (laughs). Not all. In the 50s they remade a ton of films from the 30s. It’s endemic to Hollywood which doesn’t make it a good thing, just a predictable thing. I wish it were otherwise. I’d much rather see something fresh and new than something warmed over.

Are there classics that you feel should never be remade?

Sure, probably the same list that everybody else has. You know, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, It’s a Wonderful Life, and yes, The Wizard of Oz. I know that the people who are doing new versions of The Wizard of Oz say that they’re not telling the same story or not telling it from the same point of view or the same period in the story, just as the stage show Wicked is a kind of a spinoff of The Wizard of Oz, but not telling the exact same story in that movie. But, there’s a conceit buried not too deeply in that because if it weren’t for that original these variations couldn’t and wouldn’t exist.

Do you feel that there are movies that maybe you would like to see remade? 

It’s a good theory. John Houston was asked this when they were remaking, well I can’t remember which of his films was rumored to be remade, and he said, “I wish they would remake the ones that didn’t turn out well rather than the ones that did.” People often cite that say, “That’s what you want to do.” Go back and find a film that misfired or didn’t realize its potential and remake that, but that doesn’t seem to work either.

We can always be idealistic, though.

Yeah, yeah. In a Utopian world that would be true.

Specifically within the past five years of movies, where does it stand in the history of film?

Not very high.

Within the past five years, for you, what have been the high points and what have been the low points? 

Oh gosh, I’m trying to wipe out from my mind the low points. Every year there are sleepers and new talents emerge behind the camera and in front of the camera that sort of restore my faith. They give me hope for the future and I’m not a pessimist or a fatalist. I know there’s a lot of talent out there and they just need to be given a chance to make their films and to prove themselves. When I talk about discouraging trends, most of them have to do with the big money movies from the major studios. When you go to the independent film world or documentary arena you see tremendous creativity and originality and that gives me hope, and if you look at foreign language films, take in world cinema too.

Leonard Maltin’s Official Website
Buy Leonard Maltin’s 2012 Movie Guide

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  • Grace Evans

    Leonard Maltin is a cool dude.

    http://ittybittyampersand.blogspot.com/

    • Gizzy

      Agreed. He was really nice and humble. 

  • Scarlett

    GREAT interview!! I love how he said “Great Minds Think Alike” and you almost Squeed becuz I probably would HAVE and then he would have thought I was a serious loony. Great questions too! All around A+ :)

    • Gizzy

      Why thank you! I honestly had to use all of my will power not to lose all composure. And thank you for the A+! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melody-Velasco/100000545623423 Melody Velasco

    This was a great interview to read! So great I forgot I was boiling chicken in the kitchen (don’t worry, the chicken and kitchen are okay). I always respected Leonard Maltin’s movie reviews ever since I caught him on Entertainment Tonight. Since then I simply respect his opinion, his informed opinion. Great write-up.

    • Gizzy

      Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I’m even happier to know that your chicken wasn’t over boiled, haha. 

  • http://twitter.com/crixlee Cricket Lee

    That’s my friend’s dad and I can indeed confirm he is a groovy dude. LOVE him!